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Critical thinking requires questioning authority

I had this bottle in my hand the other day:

water botle with advertisement

And it got me thinking.

That advertising is ridiculous.

All water is good for health, who says that this one is any better?
"Recommended"... By who?

And yet, it allows that producer to charge double the amount other bottled water producers charge.

And that got me thinking about critical thinking (see a previous post-analysis here).

I believe critical thinking is the meta-skill to make sense of the world, and a critical component to reach true self-empowerment and freedom.
Critical thinking might also be the skill that requires the most attention in our world.

A lack of critical thinking is at the root of many of our current world's problems.
It's the cause of herd-behavior, see the current "climate change" movements.
But it's also at the root of inequality and manipulation, see clever advertisements allowing businesses to overcharge consumers. Sometimes even at a heavy cost for the consumers -I grew up thinking that Kellogs sugar-loaded shitty cereals were good for me because I uncritically believed their labels :S-.

What Constitutes Critical Thinking

So far, I reached the following conclusions:

  1. A skeptical frame: ie.: "I need to find out more, from more people, and that's up t me, I can't trust 100% what I'm being told by one single person/source (especially if he's got a conflict of interest)"
  2. Looking for discordant information instead of confirmation: "what are instances where this thing he says does not or might not apply"?
  3. Questioning authority / rebellious attitude: "why should I do as he says?" "why should I believe what he says"?
  4. High self-esteem: "I trust myself and my abilities, I trust myself to be able to develop informed opinions if I have access to good sources". High self-esteem also underpins a skeptical frame, as the next step is: "I don't know if I can equally trust this person who's telling me what I should believe"

Followers tend to acquiesce and passively absorb information because they trust others too much, do no question authority, and sometimes lack self-esteem.
They think "what do I know, this guy is wearing a white lab coat, he must know better!".

As soon as I get time to work on the summary and reviews section of this website, I will start a new category for critical thinking skills.



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I agree and that is the funny thing in medicine for instance. During the studies you are expected to turn off your critical thinking and then when you practice medicine you are required to turn it on. Towards problems to solve, not the people in charge of course. Authorities benefit from the halo effect of which we are under by default.

I also agree with that

I find that the state (concentration on center of power premised on the monopoly of violence-e.g police,military,etc)  a bit demoralizing at times.How such institutions can have such powerful control over you (authority-socially accepted).

It seems like it was taught in school almost. Detention to be the equivalence of bring detained or suspension being the equivalence to prison  where you are socially isolated from your environment.For mere strangers(police) to have so much leverage over you to the point at times we don't question their authority or why they have guns,batons,hand cuffs,etc(tools of violence).You basically learn the power functions of the state.

It seems to be a system at times manipulates uses the media  to manipulate us to such extents especially subconsciously  when they frame their biases and norms upon us as a society.

just my 2 cents... has reacted to this post.

This is also a very important lesson in interpreting what you read about in the media.

Most people read the news with two unconscious premises:
#1 Reporters know what they are writing about
#2 Reporters go to great length to be objective

Both of these premises are false. I used to work in politics and I have many good friends who work in the media. I am therefore very familiar with the way the news is created.

The covid-19 crisis is an excellent example, because it is a priori easier in terms of objectivity to cover a scientific topic than contentious political issues like removing statues at Oxford. In fact, it is not, and the bandwagon effect is as powerful in that case as in other cases. Reporters have written plenty of stories that not only are dramatically wrong with hindsight - but could already be critically evaluated and judged as "probably wrong" when they were published.

A major news editor in a Western country recently came out with a chart showing the country's death rate from coronavirus seemingly stabilizing after weeks of going down days after lockdown ended there, with a suggestive: "Mmh," implying that the end of lockdown had an impact on the death rate in a matter of days -- which all evidence showed was absolutely impossible (it generally takes several weeks even for the very old and frail subjected to a severe infection to succumb). This was after months of covering the issue- and yet he did not know better.
Or you can look at the stories published around the time that HCQ article was published in the Lancet, showing HCQ actually worsened outcomes for covid patients. Because it was already by then a political issue (populists vs establishment), the media was eager to report on the study and claim it was the definitive proof HCQ was actively bad. It had all the good ornaments of a "credible source" : a very large sample size of 90,000 (which most untrained observers will think means the study if 100% credible), peer-reviewed publication in "The Lancet," etc....

The very night the article was published, science/epistemology specialists on Twitter were already warning of major problems with the study. Yet the media made no mention of that, France went on to forbid HCQ, and the WHO to suspend clinical essays, all based on that study. I'm sure you know the rest: the study was withdrawn in shame a little less than two weeks later, it appears the data they used was fake or at least massaged.

The fact that the study was withdrawn doesn't show you HCQ works (my personal opinion is that it's more likely than not not to be effective). But it does show you how the world of the media works - and how you can avoid falling in traps like that if you use critical thinking.

When a reporter is assigned to write about a topic, they usually have some background knowledge of the topic (say, they've written about health before) but nothing in-depth. So they'll try to reach out to reliable sources to find out their views and report them back to the public.

The problem is in assessing what a reliable source is. Reporters suffer from much of the same cognitive biases regular people do - critical thinking is very challenging. The problem is particularly acute with younger generations who tended to have considerably less demanding college professors. Chief among these biases if confirmation bias, but the usual suspects (appeal to authority, etc...) are also regularly present.

You have to actively seek out other perspectives and evaluate them for yourself. Most of all, you have to be very demanding with the evidence you analyze- both those that confirm and disconfirm your perspectives. Always ask yourself - why do I hold that opinion? What fact, if it were proven true, would cause me to change my view? What are the unspoken premises behind my conclusion? etc.

Lucio Buffalmano and Luke have reacted to this post.
Lucio BuffalmanoLuke

Very good post, Ulysses, I agree.

The way I see it, it's only a small percentage of people who do great work, add real value, and potentially even help us advance our civilization.

Most others just tag along, without really adding much value.
And many do a disservice. Mediocre and poor performances are often value-negative. Just like those mediocre journalists, they ended raising the noise level without quality, and stole people's time without adding real value.

By the way, "doing great work" doesn't mean one must be a genius or a prodigy.
Just doing one's work properly, and treating others with basic human dignity is all it takes to be a value-adder.


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